How Automatic Subconscious Procedures become (meaning-less) rhythms we can no longer escape.
by Charles Chaplin. First appeared in Script magazine, January 1938.
From the sombre dawn streaks of silver and red peered over the prison wall, and breathed a quiet requiem in rhythm with the stillness in the yard, a rhythm pulsating in silence like the throbbing of a heart. Out of that silence the voice of the commanding officer resounded against the prison walls. ‘Attention!’
At this command, six subordinates snapped their rifles to their sides and stiffened. The unity of their action was followed by a pause in which the next command was to be given.
But in that pause something happened, something that broke the line of rhythm. The condemned man coughed and cleared his throat. This interruption broke the concatenation of procedure.
The officer turned, expecting the prisoner to speak, but no words came. Turning to his men again, he was about to proceed with the next command, but a sudden revolt took possession of his brain, a psychic amnesia that left his mind a blank. He stood bewildered before his men. What was the matter? The scene in the prison yard had no meaning. He saw only objectively — a man with his back to the wall facing six others. And the group there on the side, how foolish they looked, like rows of clocks that had suddenly stopped ticking. No one moved. Nothing made sense. Something was wrong. It must be a dream, and he must snap out of it.
Dimly his memory began to return. How long had he been standing there? What had happened? Ah, yes! He had issued an order. But what order came next?
Following ‘Attention!’ was the command ‘Present arms’ and after that, ‘To aim’, and then ‘Fire!’ A faint concept of this was in the back of his mind. But words to utter it seemed far off — vague and outside of himself.
In this dilemma he shouted incoherently, jumbled words that had no meaning. But to his relief the men presented arms. The rhythm of their action set his brain in rhythm, and again he shouted. Now the men took aim.
But in the pause that followed, there came into the prison yard hurrying footsteps, the nature of which the officer knew meant a reprieve. Instantly, his mind cleared. ‘Stop!’ he screamed frantically at the firing squad.
Six men stood poised with rifles. Six men were caught in rhythm. Six men when they heard the scream to stop — fired.
The above excerpt is part of a story (click the title for the whole text) written by Chaplin (yes, that Chaplin) in relation to what was happening in Spain during the civil war. Of course, the pattern remains as you can see in the world around you.